Daily Archives: December 12, 2006

Johnson and Fideism

Although the previous chapter was titled, “The Fideist Reaction,” there were several earlier hints of a “Protestant reaction” extending forward into the nineteenth century. That complete history does not appear in this chapter, as Parker analyzes Samuel Johnson’s works as part of the initial return of fideist art. Although the concept of a divided Samuel Johnson is not new, Parker provides us with new terms for that split in naming the two halves of Johnson’s literary nature—one part is Humanist curiosity about the world (and literature in particular), and one part is fideist skepticism about the value of earthly activities (literature among all others). This latter impulse is seen most strongly in The Vanity of Human Wishes and Rasselas, in which diverse human activity leads to the same sense of futility and exhaustion (with Solomon the representative, non-classical figure of spiritual weariness). This chapter really should be read with the previous chapter for full appreciation of the fideist motifs that Parker identifies in Johnson’s work. Among other motifs, Johnson’s work emphasizes futility, meditation, and stasis. This fideist element extended to Johnson’s perception of his own activities; his literary output stimulated and amused him, but could achieve for him no higher value: “For Johnson poetry (and every art) is a diversion, a toy…and a bauble” (238). Likewise, for Johnson private devotions, though a necessary and sober duty, could provide no sense of certainty, no knowledge of divine intentions. Parker argues that Johnson’s relationship to God, and hence to God’s works, is fideist in a specific and limited: “the form of imagination in which the divine is understood is infinitely remote from sensation, analogy, and all discursive knowledge” (231 n. 3). To seek, or rather linger patiently, is pious, but to expect certainty outside of the promises of the Bible is foolish.

This image of a fideist and un-analogical Johnson affirms the thesis of the book, which is that analogical representations of God became impossible after the Augustans had done their work. The contrast between Johnson in this chapter and the account of Edward Young in the previous chapter is meant to be instructive: one incorporates modes of inquiry despite pessimism about its relevance, and the other is meditative to the point of total absence/departure. The other part of this argument is that Johnson, by systematically (dialectically?) opposing his Humanist influences to his fideist beliefs, was in fact two—creating and sustaining a paradox, to the point that “Johnson was not a man of his time” (248).

This last assertion should be closely pondered for its historical implications. If Johnson combines all of these Augustan, Humanist and fideist influences, yet is not of his time, then how does he come to appear at the end of this book? It seems strange to conclude a historically situated reading with this kind of flourish, which shows respect for Johnson as a thinker and writer but leaves us in an odd place. We are told that “Johnson solved the problem that divided the literary culture of his day”—that is, the problem of reinstating religious expression in art—“by dividing himself” (249). The last time we saw such a division was in the account of Abraham Cowley, of whom it was said “He was one of the first to feel the failure of analogy. …one of the first to reckon with the problem of a necessary revision of consciousness” but also one who “left behind an indecipherable legacy” (78-9). If Johnson represents a solution to the problems created by the Augustans, where should we look for a continuation of that solution? If he is not of his time, what is his relevance? To put it another way, is Johnson a transitional figure like Cowley, a representative figure like Pope, or a revolutionary figure like Butler? This account seems in some ways to lean towards a transitional definition: Johnson looks back to Humanist authors “now obscure” and presides over the revival of “fideist art,” albeit without being able to fully occupy the fideist mode in the manner of Edward Young. I find myself wondering what might be the relationship of this final figure to subsequent fideism in Parker’s account.

Finally, I’d like to add on to Kirsten Wilcox’s final question in the previous post by asking frankly what our own assessment might be of the relative readability of Night Thoughts and The Vanity of Human Wishes. Wilcox asks whether Johnson and Young are “united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project”—if they are/if they are not, how might readability (or familiarity—the degree to which either is read these days) affect our ability to judge the similarity or difference of the impulses behind the two poems? And what then would be the relevance of such a comparison?

The Fideist Reaction

Like Bill Levine, I come to “my” chapter late and with less of a first-hand engagement with the rest of Parker’s book than I would like. That said, I’ve been finding the conversation deeply absorbing. This is a book that I will be coming back to, and I’m grateful to this blog for getting me engaged with it at a point in the semester when the demands of teaching exert a relentless pull.

Parker concludes the previous chapter (“Four Poles of the Christian Imagination”) with the recognition that the model he uses to describe the domain of pre-Augustan Christian poetry is not “a kind of simplistic nomenclature to round off the ragged edges and complexities of Christian poetics.” As Carrie pointed out in her post, these categories may be more supple and permeable than the model suggests, when applied to individual works and writers. Nevertheless, “fideism” emerges in the next chapter (“The Fideist Reaction”) as the inevitable solution to “acute” crisis in “the Christian poetic imagination.” The abandonment of analogism and the rise of empiricism, Parker argues, limits the religiously expressive power of poetry up to the 1740s. This transitional late-Augustan poetry (my term, not Parker’s) can range anywhere from the “dismally pedestrian” (Pope’s versions of the Psalms), to the “unassuming, pious, and prosaic” (Watts’ hymns), and the “dubious and contrived” (Hill’s nature poetry).

I wondered about this assertion of “the Christian poetic imagination” and the claim that “the period from 1670 to 1740 did not produce one really important Christian poem aside from hymns” (199). There seems to be a narrowing here of what counts as “poetic imagination.” It’s my impression that devotional poetry proliferates during this period (particularly by women writers), along with hymns (over 500 by Watts alone, as Parker notes). Might this sheer quantity (along with the kind of repetition and imitation it entails) suggest that “the Christian poetic imagination” in the period may have turned away from certain kinds of poetic virtuousity yet still be expressing itself in poetic social practices that sneak under the radar of close readings of aesthetically significant poems? But that’s me beating the new historicist drum, and thinking about the book I would write rather than responding the book Parker wrote.

For Parker, Matthew Prior’s Alma marks the transition to something new: Augustan in “tone and design” it nonetheless “repudiates a good deal of Augustan thinking.” Parker identifies that repudiation with his distinction between “Davidic” and “Solomonic” forms of poetic and religious imagination. The Psalms bear “a naturalistic plenitude like that of a good deal of Baroque English poetry.” After 1700, however, poets were drawn away from the Davidic Psalms to a different poetic vision, that of Ecclesiastes and Job, “a wisdom…based on…the testing in experience of the objects of creation and finding them unequal to man’s spiritual thirst” (218). This “Solomonic” way of viewing the relationship between humans and God was particularly amenable to the fideists who identified “neither image nor analogy, neither reason nor perception, in the endless journey to a God who remains distant and unknowable, except as an object of promise and hope” (215).

The chapter ends with a reading of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which Parker describes as “the supreme…emptying out of the Augustan field of natural objects, and also of the tensions inherent in the heroic couplet…done on behalf of a kind of morbid and protracted wisdom literature, the most peculiar in English” (221). One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Parker’s discussion of Night Thoughts was his effort, as in conveying the novelty of the Augustans, to get across just how new and unusual the poetry he’s writing about was to its contemporary audience. The reading of Night Thoughts is riddled with pithy assessments that simultaneously repel and entice—perverse book-jacket blurbs: “a work…of both incomprehensible novelty and proverbial truth,” “Night Thoughts in turn mesmerizes, irritates and stultifies,” “mixture of witty apothegm and ponderous meditation,” “the supreme dalliance in the field of fideist meditation.” I too have been mesmerized and irritated by Night Thoughts–and perplexed by its invisibility. Fairer and Gerrard did not include it in the Blackwell anthology Eighteenth-Century Poetry (as far as I know the only eighteenth-century poetry-only anthology in print at the moment), and the widely taught Longman anthology of restoration and eighteenth-century literature only includes the first third of Night the First.

Although Parker uses Young’s poem to fully flesh out what “the fideist reaction” is and how it appealed to contemporary audiences, it is here that I begin to wonder if a concept that achieves its supreme expression in such a bewildering poem is really a concept that can usefully unite the range of poetry that Young applies it to. Parker repeatedly speaks of Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes as the “companion piece” to Night Thoughts, yet while both poems present a similar theology of God’s inaccessibility and the crucial leap of faith, these themes play out very differently in the two poems. Young’s poem repeatedly reaches for God over a series of nights in a state framed by “sleep and languorous dream” (as Parker puts it) and rings every possible change on that search. In Johnson’s Vanity the possibility of seeking God (as a futile but perhaps psychologically useful last resort) is raised only at the end of a poem that for the most part focuses on thick descriptions of earthly life. Are these two writers united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project—or are they turning that project in new directions (in Young’s case, turning Thomson’s “anxious eye” inward to watch and learn from the fluctuations of the soul)?